San Jose Costa Rica in February of 1972 found three gringos wandering the streets wondering what to do. I was one of them, and we were there to go tarpon fishing. But there are no tarpon is San Jose. They tend to be located in places that have water.
After a couple of days of trying to figure out where to go and how to get there we walked past a sports shop with a tarpon hanging on the wall and our problem was solved. The owner of the shop was an English speaking Tico named Carlos Barrantes and he was kind enough to offer a solution to our problem, after we convinced him that there was no way in hell that we were going to each pay $300 for a weeks fishing at Casa Mar, the high class fishing lodge.
The solution was simple. Go to Barra Colorado Norte. The more difficult part was doing just it. First we had to wait a couple of more days because the river boat that we would have to take only ran down the river twice a week. Then there was getting to that river boat.
Bright an early of a Tuesday morning we boarded a bus in San Jose for the morning bus to Heridia, where we would catch the bus for the day long trip to the village of Puerto Viejo. This was not a Greyhound bus, but typical of all busses in Central America, it was an old US school bus. Very old. And, the road was a far cry from an American highway even in those days. The road was narrow, made of dirt, winding and very slow, getting us to Puerto Viejo just before dark after an eight hour trip
We checked in at what passed for the local Marriott, a two story wood building with a half dozen rooms upstairs and a bathroom in the back yard. It would have been convenient if we had any dental problems, since the dentist happened to be there on his regular monthly visit. Thank God I had fine teeth.
After a dinner of sopa de mondongo (cow intestines soup) we took a walk down
to the river to make arrangements for our passage. The boat was about thirty-
Getting there wasn’t going to be a problem as the sleeping arrangements were a little spartan. I never cut it open to be sure but I believe my mattress was made of wet sand. Did I mention that it was raining out? And had been for the last half of our bus trip
Thankfully the rain stopped over night, and as we walked down the road to the boat we anticipated a pleasant cruise in a hot tropical day. But approaching the end of the road our mouths dropped open. There was no boat in sight. We were late after all. However getting closer we realized that since the rain had stopped the river had gone down. It had dropped a good eight feet and our cruise was still on schedule.
The boat ride took all day, with a stop off to check in with Nicaraguan immigration. That took a half hour or so, but we only had to get our passports stamped and relax while the boat was inspected, bill of laden checked, etc. It was kind of neat to walk up to a banana tree and pick a couple of fresh bananas to eat.
Then we were on our way again. There were another half dozen or so passengers, including one Leo Brown, the proprietor of the general store at Barra Norte. We were pleasantly surprised to find that he spoke English, an almost British English. We hadn’t realized it, but throughout the east coast of Central America, the first language of the Blacks was English. In Costa Rica, they were descendants of slaves out of Jamaica and the other Caribbean Islands who were brought there to build the Panama Canal and latter the railroad between San Jose and the east coast, and they retained their first language.
That made it considerably easier for us, since I was the only one of the three who had any knowledge of Spanish, having failed it twice in high school.
Carlos Barrantes had told us to look up a Doña Mercedes when we got to Barra as she had a cabin we could rent, and it turned out that Leo had a boat we could fish out of, as well as a guide, his nephew Eddie. So, by the time we reached the village, we were all set up and ready to go fishing the next morning.
We found Doña Mercedes and made a deal for the cabin and meals. Directly across the street ( I don’t know what else to call it but “street”, even though there were no cars in the village) from the cabin was her house and three table restaurant, so our meals were also included in the deal. For six dollars each, plus gas, we were getting the cabin, which was about ten feet by fifteen feet, with three beds with mosquito nets and one light bulb, three meals a day, fishing with boat motor and guide. How can you beat that? The bathroom was even convenient, about twenty feet from the cabin on the rivers edge, that we had to walk across a ten foot long plank to get to.
The next morning after a great breakfast of fruit, eggs and gallo pinto (fried
rice & beans), we set out. The boat was a twenty-
That afternoon we realized how famous we had become, when every little boy in the village showed up as we drank beer on our little porch. They became a fixture of our life and each afternoon one was sent to fetch a bottle of Flor de Caña, Nicauragua’s great rum, some cokes and limes. (If limon in Spanish means lemon, it should be safe to assume that lima means lime, no? Wrong! For our first order our little rum runner brought back the rum, coke and a file.)
The next day the rains came back. And for the next two weeks we never saw the sun again. We were sort of prepared. We each had an cheap army surplus type pancho. But, in those hot humid conditions, the sweat had no where to go, so we wound up almost as wet as if we had no protection at all. Our guide Eddie had a sheet of clear plastic about five feet by five feet that he would wrap around himself when it rained. After about three days we had no dry clothes left. We would go barefoot, and I wound up with some type of athlete foot type fungus between my toes, but the locals had a cure for it. outboard grease. Just smear it between the toes and around the foot and after a couple of days it was cured. After a week of these conditions we decided to leave, but the timing for the river boat was off, so we tried to charter a plane. That was how the clients of Casa Mar would come and go. But, because of the weather conditions, the planes couldn’t fly across the mountains. In fact Casa Mar’s clients wound up staying over a couple of days while the incoming clients sat in San Jose. But through all of this, we continued to fish and catch tarpon. Every day at least one fish and usually two or three a day.
When the conditions moderated enough to get a plane in, which was usually only for a couple of hours, Casa Mar came first, and we had to wait until all their clients changed over. Then when we had a flight that we could use, the flight was taken over by the Costa Rican health department to fly a woman back to San Jose who had been bitten by a venomous snake.
Finally we got a break. A plane had flown to Limon, and couldn’t fly back to San Jose, so it was available for us, however, not to go back to San Jose, but rather down the coast to Limon, where we would be able to take the train back into the city. We jumped on it.
The plane was a single engine wing over type plane with a pilot and another seat forward with seating for two in back. But, there was another guy who wanted to get out as well.He was a gringo who was building a lodge at Tortuguero, about twenty miles south of where we were. Since there was no airstrip there at that time he had come to Barra to catch a flight. Well, what the hell, we could all squeeze in somehow. We also had a rod tube about seven feet long with our fishing rods in it, which also had to be brought out. So, I wound up in the back with one of my partners and the extra guy sort of sitting on our laps. We used one seat belt over the three of us. One of my other partners was in the forward seat, doubled over, because the rod tube passed over his head. As we were loading up the pilot just sat there chewing his nails, or what he could find of them. Finally after someone went down and chased the cows off the runway we took off. I don’t think we ever got any higher than the coconuts trees along the beach, but we made it back to safety.
The next day we took the narrow gauge train back to San Jose, and that was another adventure. The following year we were back with great weather and even better fishing.
COSTA RICA TARPON CIRCA 1972
by Capt Gene Kelly
Capt Gene Kelly
Tropical Fishing Adventures
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